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Privateers, buccaneers and corsairs: why not all pirates were created equal

During the Age of Sail, one man’s privateer was another man’s pirate. But what was the legal difference?

Map showing Sir Francis Drake's privateering fleet attacking Ribeira Grande the capital of Santiago
Published: January 18, 2022 at 1:16 pm
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All pirates are pirates, right? Not quite. During the golden age of piracy, there were several distinct names for groups that sailed the high seas. These labels could tell you a lot about their actions and where they came from – and how they were seen in the eyes of the law.

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The term pirate is probably the most general term for nefarious seafarers, coming from the Greek peiratēs – meaning brigand – used since the 14th century as a term for someone who committed piracy. Traditionally, those known as pirates would use violence and intimidation to raid ships at sea or coastal settlements, and this term could be applied to any era, not just the golden age.

Privateers and letters of marque

Privateers, though they were technically on the right side of the law, were often just pirates by another name. Crucial to the view of privateers’ activities were letters of marque, which date to the late Middle Ages; the earliest mention of such a letter is in a patent roll of Edward I from 1293.

These were commissions from a country’s authorities – the monarch or government – that allowed privately owned vessels to wage war against shipping from another country or territory. As they offered a cheaper option than building and maintaining a navy, many maritime nations made use of privateers to attack enemy shipping, and numbers often swelled in times of war.

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But it wasn’t uncommon for the lines between pirate and privateer to become blurred. Many who started out as privateers would stray outside their commission, raiding ports or ships beyond their licence. In 1691, a man named Thomas Tew, who had been born in a British colony in today’s Rhode Island, accepted a commission from Bermuda’s governor for a privateering venture to Africa, to take a French fort located on the Gambia River.

Yet instead of attacking the French as promised, he and his crew sailed to the Indian Ocean and plundered a Mughal ship, returning to Rhode Island with substantial amounts of treasure.


Dr Rebecca Simon responds to your questions on the 17th-century golden age of piracy and discusses how accurate pop culture portrayals of pirates are on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


One key difference was that privateers would be required to return to their government and share the spoils, rather than line their own pockets like pirate crews. During war between England and Spain in the 16th century, Elizabeth I used letters of marque to grant privateering licenses to sailors – known as her ‘Sea Dogs’ – who formed a supplementary navy. Sir Martin Frobisher looted French ships in the English Channel, and Sir Richard Hawkins preyed upon enemy shipping in the Spanish Main.

These ‘legal’ pirates – at least in the eyes of the English – helped subsidise state power by mobilising armed ships and sailors, and swelled royal coffers. In 1568 English privateer Francis Drake took part in the battle of San Juan de Ulúa (in modern-day Mexico) against Spanish forces; although a defeat, he returned with gold and silver worth over £40,000. Many of these ‘Sea Dogs’ also made England’s first forays into the trade of enslaved people, laying the foundations of Britain’s significant involvement in the global trade.

But when James VI and I acceded to the throne in 1603, he pursued a more peaceful relationship with Spain, and consequently cracked down on privateering expeditions. By the decline of the Age of Sail, privateering had become obsolete, and letters of marque were officially abolished after the Congress of Paris in 1856.

How are privateers different from buccaneers and corsairs?

While the terms ‘buccaneer’ and ‘corsair’ can refer to both pirates and privateers, the difference between the former pair had more to do with geography. ‘Corsair’ was the name given to those operating on the Mediterranean Sea and the Barbary Coast of North Africa, many of whom were privateers authorised by their governments in the Ottoman empire. Their biggest ports were in Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Rabat, and Salé. The name had religious overtones, as the pirates that sailed around the Mediterranean were often Muslim, and they were seen to prey on Christian, or non-Muslim vessels. Corsairs remained a force in the Mediterranean until the 19th century.

The term ‘buccaneer’ was most common in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The word originated from the French term boucan, meaning a frame that was used to roast or smoke meat, as many early European settlers were hunters who earned their living by selling smoked meat to passing Spanish ships.

As these same hunters – branded boucanier – turned to piracy, the label evolved to apply generally to most of the privateers and pirates who operated in the Caribbean – particularly those based on the islands of Hispaniola, Tortuga and Port Royal. Famous buccaneers included Bartholomew Roberts and Captain Henry Morgan, a pirate famed for his bloodthirsty nature who plundered the Caribbean colonies during the late 17th century.

As the Age of Sail came to an end, these terms lost some distinction, and today, they are often used interchangeably when talking about the villains of the high seas.


Privateers, buccaneers, and corsairs: three famous examples

Struggling with your pirate terminology? Here are three seafarers who fit the main labels…

The privateer: Francis Drake

English admiral Francis Drake (later Sir Francis) was granted a privateering commission by Elizabeth I in 1572 – he was referred to by the queen as “my pirate”.

The first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe (between 1577 to 1580) and return alive, Drake made a fortune plundering Spanish settlements in the Americas, and later became famed for his role in the 1588 English victory over the Spanish Armada.

The buccaneer: François l’Olonnais

François l’Olonnais was born in Les Sables-d’Olonne, France, in 1630. He came to the Caribbean as an indentured servant in the 1650s and by the early 1660s had become a buccaneer. He is most famous for invading and destroying Maracaibo (in modern-day Venezuela) with a fleet of eight ships and more than 400 pirates in order to find gold.

L’Olonnais was known as a sadistic torturer. While in Maracaibo, he forced his victims to reveal where they had hidden their possessions by slicing them with his sword, burning and then strangling them. The circumstances of his death are unknown; he may have been killed by an indigenous tribe in Honduras in c1668.

The corsair: John Ward, aka Yusuf Raïs

John Ward began his career as a privateer, though following James VI and I’s crackdown against the semi-legal form of piracy, he fled to the north coast of Africa with a band of Cornish pirates, where a leader named Uthman Dey had created a powerful guild of corsairs.

There, Ward made a name for himself by seizing an astonishing array of vessels. Around 1610, he and his crew took the decision to convert to Islam and settling permanently in Tunis, where Ward changed his name to Yusuf Raïs.

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This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast

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